Anson Mills: Preserving Heirloom Grains One Kernel at a Time

Glenn Roberts, Anson Mills, Rice Grits from Southern Living Magazine

Anson Mills was born of a driving, insatiable curiosity. Glenn Roberts was never meant to live a normal life. Finding settling into a normal career path impossible, Roberts pushed himself to deeply explore every new subject that piqued his interest. He was an Air Force pilot because of an obsession with fast planes, he dabbled in riding and dressage, he worked as a yacht navigator and mate, falling in love with indigenous cuisines along his path, he drove long haul trucks, he studied German literature in college. Finally, he followed a passion for architectural history and a study of food history to become a consultant in historic preservation and remodeling projects in South Carolina. At this point in his journey, he found himself planning period-specific dinners to celebrate the culmination of each project, striving to source the original ingredients for each dish. At one such dinner, he opened a bag of Carolina Gold Rice from the only producer at the time to find it infested with weevils. This shocking discovery paired with the frustration he found in trying to source Antebellum grains and crops to supplement the meals he planned out forged a fire in Roberts that eventually engulfed his life.

Roberts began searching for growers that would be willing to cultivate Carolina Gold Rice, alongside a few varietals of corn that had also gone by the wayside as crops began being cultivated for ease rather than flavor and nutrition, but he came up empty handed. In 1998, Roberts bought a warehouse, built a mill, threw away his business cards, and began his journey to make Carolina Gold Rice a viable Southern crop, growing, harvesting, and milling other nearly extinct varieties of heirloom corn and wheat organically. By 2000, Roberts had his first usable corn harvest and was cultivating 10 varietals of dent corn. He was well on his way to recreate the ingredients of the Antebellum Southern larder.

The “Carolina Rice Kitchen” is thought to be the first colonial American cuisine. Like most cuisines, it was cultivated to serve the rich. Bringing together the technology of Venetian canal growers, African rice management practises, and Native American labor, the Georgia and Carolina rice growing region was rich with cultures built upon the backs of others. While plantation life is not something Southerners should be proud of, the varietals of grains that were cultivated during this time were quite beautiful, nutritious, and delicious. Their production fell off as labor became more expensive and technology made it easier to dumb down and streamline production into just a few strains. Anson Mills is pushing to motivate farmers and chefs to create a new market for these grains, and pushing themselves to work hard to make a higher quality product that deserves to be preserved.

At Heirloom, we source several grain varieties from Anson Mills. They are cold milled, and chill vacuum packed as each order comes in and then ship it out the same day, allowing the product to arrive at peak freshness with maximum flavor retention. Here is a little background on the individual products that we are using:

Carolina Gold Rice:

Cultivated as the staple grain in the Carolina Rice Kitchen, this delicate, sweet, non-aromatic rice provides a superior texture and flavor and a clean flavor. Cooked correctly, it results in fluffy, individual grains, creamy risotto, or sticky Asian style rice.

Benne Seed:

Originally hailing from Africa, the enslaved people brought benne seed with them to cook their rice with. They grew it in hidden gardens, but eventually it was discovered by plantation owners and they brought it into their own kitchens. When cooked, benne imparts a nuttiness, deep burnt honey flavor, and magnifies the umami notes naturally found in the foods it is cooked with. Planted between field peas and corn, benne improves soil quality and provides natural pest control. Eventually benne became known as sesame and was grown specifically for oil production, loosing flavor as it was refined for this more profitable use. The benne grown for Anson Mills retains the original qualities, and can be used on its own or ground into a flour to bake with.

Jimmy Red Corn:

Grown on James Island off the coast of South Carolina, this dent corn has a rich, sweet taste, a red color, and an aroma of lavendar & chestnut. Originally cultivated by Native Americans, chef Sean Brock (Husk, Minero, McCrady’s)  reached out to Ted Chewning, a farmer on James Island, to ask him to cultivate this variety of corn. Brock and Chewing eventually partnered with Anson Mills to continue cultivation.

Sea Island Red Peas:

Brought from Africa in the 17th century, the “ruddy and diminutive” field pea varietal is the original pea used in low country cuisine’s darling dish, Hoppin’ John. It provides bold flavor, exceptional nutrition, and a sweet, creamy richness. Most delicious when paired with smoked pork, these peas are ideally served over a bowl of Carolina Gold Rice Grits.

Sea Island White Peas:

Finding information about this varietal of field pea was difficult, but Sean Brock reports that he understands why it is no longer cultivated after three seasons worth of failed crops. Somehow we were able to snag some for Heirloom, though.

Recommended Reading:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on The Future of Food by Dan Barber

The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge

Heritage by Sean Brock

Anson Mills Rice Grits: True Grit from Southern Living

Anson Mills Boss Glenn Roberts Is The Guy To Know For Heirloom Grains In America from Food Republic

A Grits Revival With the Flavor of the Old South from The New York Times (The article responsible for the love of Glen Roberts & Kay Rentschler)

The Low Country Seed Savor Catalogue from Lucky Peach (Sean Brock’s tour of heirloom grains)

Jimmy Red Corn profile from The Ark of Taste from Slow Food USA

A Fresh Look: Carolina Grist a film from Southern Foodways Alliance

Anson Mills website

Heirloom Athens

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